The new NBC reality series Who Do You Think You Are? debuts tonight, March 5 at 8 PM on NBC and this new series features celebrities taking a glimpse at the ancestors' past. Next week's episode features former NFL running back Emmitt Smith, which airs on Friday, March 12 at 8 PM ET, and Smith recently held a conference call to discuss his appearance on the show. Here's what he had to say.
So tell me what made you want to take this journey publicly in front of America to discover your family roots.
Emmitt Smith: Well, number one it's been a long time since I've been to a complete family reunion because of obviously football activities run throughout the summer and my commitment to my sport. And so when this opportunity presented itself I thought it would be a great way to connect back to my family heritage and take a journey that I thought would be very, very exciting and eye awakening for myself and that's one reason why I chose to do it.
And what do you think that your fans and viewers will get out of watching your episode and the whole season of Who Do You Think You Are?
Emmitt Smith: I think they get a sense of truly some of the hurt and pain that I was able to feel especially when you start thinking about loved ones who were mistreated during the darkest times of American history. And I think that in itself is moving because then I think the message for me from that moment was that opportunities that we do have as African American people here in this great country of the United States of America is for us to take full advantage of those opportunities and handle those open doors so to speak with a great deal of humility. And not only that but take it to a whole other level because we do add value to this nation that we live in and our ancestors also added value. Although some of that value was gone unnoticed or unrecognized by some people but times have changed. And the legacy of Martin Luther King where he envisioned a world of blacks and whites and Hispanics and all people coming together to work as one is starting to happen and has happened. And so we just need to continue to move the ball forward to make this nation better.
Regarding the coincidence that some critical information came from the Mecklenburg County Deed Book Number 22. It occurred to me I've never even heard the story of how you became Number 22. Is there a story behind that and your famous number or was it just a case of when you were in college they gave you a number and it stuck?
Emmitt Smith: The story is just pretty simple. There was an upperclassman who had Number 24 and I was a freshman and so they just put me into 22 just to go behind John L. Williams. And so considering that I was built similar to him, that's just how it ended up happening. So nothing that I did on my own, just the fact that it just worked out that way.
And you're just going I'm cool. This number is as good as any I guess, right?
Emmitt Smith: Without a doubt. I mean I couldn't complain. I mean I'm a freshman. I'm not going to stomp my feet and bump heads with the upperclassman and try to bogart my way. And not only that but when you're an upcoming freshman and you've been highly recruited from a national basis, it wouldn't have been the wisest thing to do to go in with a bunch of arrogance.
And then when you come onboard with the Cowboys, there was at that point no question that you would be Number 22, right?
Emmitt Smith: Yeah. I mean when I came to the Cowboys they automatically gave me Number 22. And so I didn't argue about that because I was 22 in college, why not carry 22 in the pros? And the rest is just history.
In a different episode Lisa Kudrow, she did her roots and it took her to Europe and she's in this meeting some family members who are speaking German and they're going - and one of them says I never imagined Lisa Kudrow would be in my house instead of just on my TV. Did you ever get people like that when you went to Africa, who like knew all about you?
Emmitt Smith: No. That did not happen with me. Matter of fact, I didn't get a chance to meet any of my blood linked relatives in Benin. Some of that information, most of that information was kept private because they were able to see that within their database of the region of Benin that my blood line had a complete link to those guys in that region. So we didn't know names specifically of the people but they just knew that my blood line came from that region.
So in going so far back and traveling to like where your ancestors go to, was there like - did you feel that sense of connection once you were there? Was there kind of - did you actually get that sense of this is where you came from?
Emmitt Smith: No I didn't. No I didn't. What I really got out of it was when I had that emotional moment in Burnt Corn when I realized the significance of that particular area. And started to put pieces of the puzzle together and started to feel like my ancestors, started to cry out when I was starting to put those pieces together because it started to rain just as I was putting those pieces of the puzzle together and coming to fruition that hey, this right here, all this is significant and this is how I came to be. And at that time I just had like an emotional connection like my ancestor was crying out saying I once was lost but now I am found. And I felt like I was on a journey to find those people and release their souls so they can go and rest in peace completely. And for me it was an incredible and emotional moment because of the timing of the revelation of that and the things that were happening at the time around me, the rain, the tears - all it was coming down it was like being able to put that together at that moment was so, so, so real.
And now have you been able to share with your family all this stuff or share the episode with them and see their reaction and kind of - how do they feel about seeing all that, that you found?
Emmitt Smith: I haven't shared it with them. I haven't seen it myself. I'm waiting to watch it so I have it a first time emotion and a first time reaction to it. I haven't shown it to any of my family members but I have given my family members some documentation that I was able to receive from the show. And they have been able to go through the documentation and read about Mariah, her children, the (Periers) and all the things that happened then. But they have not seen the show either.
I saw that there was the rumor that there is a white ancestry. Did you end up finding that?
Emmitt Smith: Well, the rumor - I never met any of them but the rumor and what we concluded and ended up believing is that (Samuel Perier) who was the owners of my slave ancestors - what we believe and concluded was that he actually may have been the father of Mariah. Just the way that she was taken care of and the way that she was handled throughout the whole process when she was fielded down to other family members. They took care of her.
So how is it like in finding that out or maybe coming to that conclusion, how did that feel for you kind of seeing that there was this bridge kind of crazy, weird history?
Emmitt Smith: I have always believed in my heart that although we have different shades of people, different sizes and different colors and races and so forth, I honestly believe that we all are connected by one thing or two things. We're connected by our love for who we are as people. We're connected by the blood mainly, our blood is all the same color. And we have emotions very similar to the next man. And so that much I have always believed. And so I wasn't completely shocked. I wasn't completely overwhelmed by the fact that I had a white ancestor. But the thing that really bothered me the most was just the way that my white ancestors treated my people and how they looked upon my family members. They looked upon them as cattle. Matter of fact, they looked upon them less than horses. And so that, I'm just thankful that my heart has not been fueled with that type of conviction or that type of evil. And so that part I'm thankful for. And at the end of the day, that was then, this is now. That's the whole part of learning and growing and learning from your mistakes. I mean if you ran into someone that thought like that years ago thinking like that in today's time, yeah I would have an issue with that person. But right now I'm in a different place. My heart is in a different place and I'm appreciative of where I'm at now.
Sports fans obviously can be so obsessive about their athletes. They know everything about you. So what would these people be most surprising to them to find out?
Emmitt Smith: Probably how emotional I really am as a person. For some reason most people probably have never seen an athlete that is supposed to be this gladiator type athlete truly get emotional. And they're probably completely shocked at how connected I am to not only my manhood but also to the emotions of what the world brings and the emotions of other folk and I'm passionate and I'm sympathetic or empathetic to the feelings of others. And so those might be some things that people might see that they may not have known about me.
And when it comes to football these days do you root for the Cardinals or still the Cowboys?
Emmitt Smith: Do I prefer the Cardinals over the Cowboys? I root for both of those teams. Now the Cowboys is my only team that I really truly love. But I root for the Arizona Cardinals because I've got guys on that team that I played ball with when I was out there.
And as far as your stats, how protective are you of your stats? Do you look forward to someone topping you or do you sort of want to keep some of those as yours?
Emmitt Smith: I don't even care. I don't.
You said earlier you talked a little bit about what made you want to do it. And I was just wondering how exactly you got involved with it. Were you approached? Was it an immediate yes from you?
Emmitt Smith: Yes I was approached and I think I did give an immediate yes. This is something I want to do. This has given me a great opportunity to connect back into my past. Considering that I missed so many family reunions over my years due to football and my commitment to trying to become one of the best athletes that I possibly could become, this provided me an opportunity to stay connected with my family.
And how much did you know about your family history before going into this?
Emmitt Smith: I knew not as much as I know now. Put it that way. I mean truly, truthfully and honestly I could add that time - I could have gone back probably to my grandparents, my mom's mom and dad and my dad's mom and dad. I can't go back to my great grandparents. Even though I heard their names mentioned but I never met them before. I couldn't go back any farther than that. So what this show has allowed me to is get a chance to know (Bill) and (Victoria Watson) on my grandmother's side of the family.
How do you prepare for something like this? Were you at all worried or nervous about what you could find out?
Emmitt Smith: No I wasn't because you know what, whatever I found out it wasn't going to affect me or the way I think right now. What it was going to do was either make me better or make me drive harder to continue to press towards the mark of something greater than what I am today.
Now, if you had a second chance would you play out your career like you did and move on to Arizona?
Emmitt Smith: Oh yeah. I still would do it for two reasons, one, I was able to get closer when I went to Arizona and I love the Bidwells because they took great care of me so that's what they did. But what it did for me - he cleared up - I mean, I played 13 years with the Dallas Cowboys and those other two years, when I left the Cowboys I said to myself I can continue to do this and I can do it at a high level. I'm better than the guys that they're trying to replace me with and so when I went to Arizona it gave me an opportunity to prove that. It game me ad opportunity to really check myself and really see how much I really love the game. And at that time I realized that my love for the game was tied so much, so much, to the team that I was playing with which was the Dallas Cowboys. That's where my destiny lies and I realize that to this day. I was able to say the door is closed. I've done played as long as I needed to play. I've done all the things that I needed to do. There isn't anymore for me to do. I don't need the money. My love for the game is no longer there like it used to be so it's time for me to go. I was able to get closer and I think that's what every athlete truly wants.
How did your kids react to you doing this show, Who Do You Think You Are? How did they feel about finding out about their past?
Emmitt Smith: You know what, they were all excited and I don't think they truly understood the depths of what I was getting ready to do. They were excited because they were going to be on television. But, at the end of the day it gave us an opportunity to have conversation about parents, grandparents, great grandparents and the evolution of a family and the importance of what we do as kids becomes sometimes kids will become parents and then their kids will end up being parents. And so they need to understand how all of that stuff works and how they should understand who their relatives are and try to stay in contact with them.
Now, can you talk about how you perceived yourself prior to taking the journey? Is it kind of like a glass half empty to a full glass?
Emmitt Smith: Well, I think you can probably say a glass half empty to a full glass. I had a sense - I believed that I was an African, I believed I was a descendant from Africa but never really chased it that far or even had an opportunity to even go back that far. The farthest we could go back was to (Bill) and (Victoria Watson). And what this has done, it has given us an understanding past (Bill) and (Victoria Watson) into the darkest hours of slavery and to understand who the slave owners were and what they did and how they did their work, how they made their living. And then they took me back to the west coast of Africa where slave trading and trafficking was at and where our folks came from and so it was a very interesting to journey through that and try to parallel that to the history of books of American history.
There's a lot of reality TV out there and this is certainly a different kind of reality TV. Do you think that there needs to be more like this where it's not about a prize or a million dollars or fame, it's just about raising awareness and telling a real story? Do you think there needs to be more TV like that?
Emmitt Smith: To me, I think so. I believe so. I believe we take this show and you take the new show that's out, Finding My Family, I think it's Finding My Family... Take that show, I mean those are great, feel good shows. I mean, I love them because they're taking real people and they're connecting real people's life stories with so many broken families in this country and we know that with the divorce rate as high as it is, kids not know how their other siblings are, etc., etc., across the board nobody really wanted to talk about some of the ugly thing and this show, right here, affords some of that stuff to happen and inspire people to go and try and find and seek their ancestors, and seek their family members. And hopefully that's what they get out of this. I mean, there's so much negative going on how about a bunch of positive things to balance out all the negative stuff? And this is what this show here brings to the table.
So what surprised you most about this journey, what did you discover that you weren't expecting?
Emmitt Smith: I wasn't expecting to find someone in Deed Book 22. That's for sure. That would have been the last thing I would have thought of especially someone of such importance as Mariah was to our family tree. And just that right there was definitely somewhat earth shattering to me. It was an emotional moment when I saw that and just the connection itself and the - I mean, how ironic was that? To find one of the greatest - the descendants, one of your ancestors in a book that's labeled Deed Book 22 in an area that as Mecklenburg County, Mecklenburg County Virginia in the area where I was probably never ever thought to go.
Which area that you visited did you feel like you got the most information out of between Burnt Corn and Virginia and Africa. What did you kind of walk away thinking that really kind of turned the corner for you.
Emmitt Smith: I think Burnt Corn did it for me. I think Burnt Corn really told me a lot about both sides; the slavery side as well as the slave master side. How we actually - how we were treated and the mentality of people during that era and how we were mistreated during that era. And I think that part right there was a little bit different, understanding how the Indians and so forth was driven out of their land and so forth. It was so - to me it was so different then what you could ever read in the history book. And that part was very, very interesting to me and emotional too because to me is where I think I unlocked the key to what I believe my ancestors where crying out. Someone had found me where I had been lost for a long time. Because you have to understand a lot of my ancestors who was transported from the west coast of Africa they left the homeland with a thought in their mind that they'll never ever be found again. And going through a distance land not knowing if they were going to survive the trip and if they did survive the trip who was going to take care of them. So a lot of them fended for themselves for many, many centuries and years and now here I am, grandson of these ancestors and I'm out seeking them and uncovering clues to lead me to go even deeper into our family tree. So, that's pretty cool.
I'm just curious as a University of Florida alumni I'm sure you're interested in the life of Tim Tebow. Obviously there's been a lot of controversy surrounding him and kind of how he's used his fame to endorse his political and religious views. I'm just curious what your feelings are on that and what your relationship is with him.
Emmitt Smith: Well, the amazing thing is people say he uses his fame for political views etc., etc., we use our fame for everything else, why not to help change the way America is Run and the way we think about our homeland and if it's positive. I mean, obviously you've got people with different views so you're trying to tell him he shouldn't use his platform to assist in change and to me I think that's absolutely wrong because we use every mechanism that we possibly can in order to win an election or even to make change or affect change. And so I think it's kind of hypocritical of people who walk around with this double standard like he shouldn't do this, he shouldn't do that. This is a free country and we leverage every aspect of who we are as a country to get the best that we possibly can for this nation as well as for our own individual families. It's a shame.
And what do you think of Tebow's chances in the NFL?
Emmitt Smith: I think Tebow's - he has an opportunity. Now, obviously he has a lot of work to do. He has to prove that he can read defenses and make the throws that he needs to make at the next level. It's not going to be easy but, I mean, he's a great leader. He's probably a hard worker and given the opportunity I'm sure he's going to probably make the best of it.
Like we mentioned before this show is unlike any other reality shows. What do you think will keep the audience intrigued and wanting to keep tuning in?
Emmitt Smith: Well, I think they want - I think the audience may want to see who else - they're probably wondering if I'm related to somebody. So they're going to keep going and it should be amazing to them that you never know the information that you may get. You may get a clue that may unlock someone else's opportunity to go deeper into their roots and you might end up being connected in some way. So, I think the audience will also get a chance to see some celebrities in a different light. Emotionally as well as exposed to some historical evidence of stuff that has transpired over the years that has not even been talked about. It's not publicized and they get a chance to go and look into history from a different perspective. And see how truly history has affected one's family.
I also wanted to say I loved you on Dancing with the Stars. I enjoyed watching you every week.
Emmitt Smith: Thank you.
I wanted to know where you keep your trophy.
Emmitt Smith: It's in my family room. It's still in good shape too by the way.
Emmitt Smith's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will air on Friday, March 12 at 8 PM ET on NBC and the series premieres tonight, March 5.